Writing: The Shape of Essay


Recently, a student sent me a piece meant to outline the thesis of a book. But whoa, Nelly! Essays and nonfiction chapters must have a shape.

Writing Tip for Today: Can your essay or nonfiction stand up to the shape challenge?

Journalism Rules

One of the basic rules of journalism is the three-point rule for articles and essays: (1) State the premise or promise, (2) build up that promise’s argument and (3) remind and give a takeaway. For a news article, you’ll start with what you need to communicate, expound on that idea and then remind and show readers the significance of the original promise.

With essay and nonfiction you’re telling them, showing them more and then pointing to what it means or what they gain or take away. In creative nonfiction or essays, the “promise” (opening) might be shown through a scene with characters who have a problem. The build-up (middle) will show readers the character’s process for solving their problem.

Near the conclusion, essayists often “turn” to the reader and guide them to understand what they can take away from the piece. Many times, the essay returns briefly to the scene and character to give readers a sense of closure.

One Point, Please

To make an essay cohesive or “hang together,” keep one major point in mind. Avoid trying to direct readers to several different promises or points. Sticking with one major point helps readers stay oriented to what you’re trying to say.

Sometimes, even you the writer may not understand the point until you’ve drafted your essay. This is especially true if you’ve gone on tangents or tried to include too broad a point. The scenes and symbols you choose should become clearer as you revise. I find that with essays I tend to revise a lot.

Consider the pace of your work. I can say the same thing three ways—and I often do. In revision I see repetitive examples and can winnow the essay to the best one. Yes, you must keep showing the reader where to go, but your reader is smart—don’t hit them over the head with your point.

You hope to give your readers something new or valuable.

Takeaways and Turns

Toward the end of the body of an essay, you’ll want to exit a scene and address or “turn to” readers with a few global or more abstract ideas of the scenes you’ve written to illustrate your point. Don’t stay here long—readers are usually more interested in scene than in ideas.

In a few sentences, remind readers of the essay’s promise. Sum it up in a way that they can apply to their own lives. This turn draws in readers to help them identify with the essay’s point. For instance, if your piece is about learning to cope with a loss, direct this turn to relate directly to your reader. “In the end, we all lose things, but we also grow past losses into life’s next adventure.”

You hope to give your readers something new or valuable to walk away with. If readers say, “I never thought of it that way,” or “I learned something new,” you’ve likely met the requirements of a good essay. After this turn, I like to leave readers back where we began (also called a wraparound) with the character different or having grown in some way. That way, readers can leave the essay believing that change is possible. What do you find the hardest part of essay writing?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing: The Shape of Essay

  1. Well-said, Linda! Thanks.

    Re your closing question: Trying to select and arrange important points is the hardest part of nonfiction writing for me. Conversely, writing poetry and even some fiction pieces rely on those very tangents that spin my head in NF. But, regardless of genres, a manuscript needs something-new or some sort of “take-away” for readers, so I hope our Christian Poets & Writers group members will read this post.

    God bless.

  2. Oh Linda! Perfect timing for a terrific lesson. I’ve been stuck, with both too many ideas flowing and too many distractions away from all of them. Your teaching gives me needed structure at just the right time.
    With gratitude,
    Linda (NBB)

  3. Hi Mary,
    I think essay is one of the most difficult forms–and poetry (good poetry, anyway) being the most difficult. It’s all about that reader takeaway, and carefully pacing your single important point. Thanks and I do hope the CP&W members will visit this post.
    Keep Writing!

  4. Great timing for me as well, Linda!

    Maintaining one point has been my greatest challenge, but one that “is” helping me to stay focused. Now that I recognize my propensity to throw everything in, I ask myself the question, “What is the one thing I want my reader to take away?” That has been very helpful!

    Any truly, this works for fiction as well. When I am editing a chapter, I ask myself what was the takeaway in this chapter?

    Thank you for all you do!

    • Eve,
      I think you’re right about fiction–we are our readers’ manager, and so we must be clear about where we need them to go, what to remember or forget and what to takeaway. Thanks for chiming in!
      Keep Writing,

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